Traditional tea setup demonstrating deferent tea cultures.

Unveiling the Secrets of Modern Tea Culture

Oct 22, 2023

Shanika Dasanayaka

Tea is not only just a beverage but also a sacred art in some societies. Generally, a culture represents the ideas, customs, and behaviors of a society or a group. So, do you believe there is a culture for tea as well? Let's delve into more about tea culture.

Tea culture is associated with a society's ideas, customs, and behaviors related to tea. It embodies how a community selects, prepares, serves, and enjoys tea. Many communities consider drinking tea an art, often imbued with a sense of sacredness. Consequently, they've assigned value to tea preparation and consumption, leading to the development of tea culture over time. With tea being a globally consumed beverage, various countries have distinct tea cultures. These tea cultures are unique to each nation, both in tea-producing countries and tea-consuming ones. While there's some level of tea culture in all tea-consuming countries, some are more famous. For instance, tea cultures such as British, Japanese, Russian, and Turkish tea cultures stand out from the rest. 

Which tea culture do you belong to? So, let's sit back, relax, and learn about each tea culture.

History of Tea

The origin of tea goes back centuries. In 2750 BC, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung accidentally discovered tea. When visiting the countryside, the emperor wanted to drink hot water. Water had boiled outside, under a tree, and some leaves had fallen into it. Upon drinking the water, he experienced a delicate, bitter taste with a refreshing effect. The fallen leaves were the source of this taste.. Emperor Shen Nung began consuming tea as a restorative remedy and encouraged others to do the same.

Since then, tea has been recognized as a medicinal and refreshing beverage. Tea processing, brewing, and drinking experiments were done unofficially in therapeutic houses. International trade played a role in spreading tea's popularity, and the Dutch were the first to drink tea in Europe. When the British learned the commercial value of this brew, they promoted tea as a beverage and a commercial crop in their colonies with excellent growing conditions. Further, the British introduced several tea processing mechanisms to retain the best qualities, character, and flavor, resulting in tea. With these steps, tea became a commercial crop worldwide. As a beverage, many scientific studies have been conducted to identify its health benefits. 

China's Tea History

Originating in 2750 BC, China has a rich tea history. The popularity of tea as a beverage grew rapidly from the 4th to the 8th centuries. It became a beverage that a niche market consumed, resulting in the spreading of tea plantations throughout China. It led to the growth of tea plantations, wealthy tea merchants, and the introduction of luxury tea wares, symbolizing status.

As tea became a luxury, China's empire strictly controlled cultivation practices and preparation methods. Young females were allowed to engage in tea-related activities, and they perceived tea as a symbol of purity. These ladies were not permitted to use odorous things like wearing flowers, eating, or touching strong spices to avoid contamination with tea. As a result, tea became a sacred beverage, and the practices used for tea growing and preparation became a part of Chinese tea culture.

Invention of Black Tea

Tea was initially consumed as fresh green tea in China. However, as foreign trade developed, Chinese tea manufacturers realized that maintaining tea's qualities for extended periods was challenging. Then, they discovered a method by which tea could preserve its qualities following a unique fermenting process, and the specially fermented tea was named "Black Tea." Black tea's improved flavor and aroma made it suitable for export journeys, making it famous worldwide.

Tea in Modern China

Tea has been rooted in Chinese society for thousands of years. As a result, tea has become an integral part of Chinese culture. Despite China's modernization, tea remains intertwined with its history, religion, and culture. Chinese tea culture has gained popularity in the tourism sector. Therefore, China invests in tea education, maintains tea-related museums, introduces modern teaware, and develops new tea varieties using advanced technology. Moreover, Chinese tea is promoted in China and worldwide as a flavorful beverage. Chinese tea and its tea culture now symbolize modern China.

Tibet's Tea History

Tibet is a country with a rugged climate and rocky terrain. Therefore, the conditions for growing tea are not suitable in Tibet. However, when tea was introduced to Tibetans by the Chinese in the early 9th century, they loved it and couldn't escape from having it. So, they started to import from China via the yak caravan. The tea transportation route was through the world's highest mountains, which took nearly one year. This situation made tea a luxury beverage, & they had to save the consignments from thieves and pirates. As tea was a luxury, high-valued, and rare-to-find item in Tibet, it possessed all the characteristics a currency should have. So, In Tibet, compressed tea was used as a currency for many transactions. This is why we say the Tibetan tea culture differs from other ancient tea cultures.

Traditional Tibetan Tea

Tibet is a country that is located among the highest Himalayan mountains in the world. Therefore, it is difficult for people in Tibet to add salt and fat to their daily intake. Traditional tea culture has provided a solution to this issue by preparing tea differently than other societies. Traditionally, Tibetans boil the tea for around half an hour in boiling water. Then, they add yak butter and salt to the tea and churn them until emulsified. The tea looks like a light soup with a salty taste, which is unique among all other teas available worldwide.

A Tibetan Staple

A normal Tibetan drinks around 40 tea cups daily, making tea a staple in Tibet. In Tibetan etiquette, a guest cannot leave without tea, and the teacup can never be empty when they leave. These aspects manifest that Tibet has a unique tea culture with different characteristics.

Japan's Tea History

China and Japan are proximate countries where frequent travel by citizens happens for diplomatic and religious purposes. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century by travelers from China. A Buddhist monk, Dengyo Daishi, gets the credit for bringing tea to Japan for cultivation purposes. As tea possesses relaxing and refreshing properties, it became an integral part of Japanese monastery life. The monks used to drink tea to stay alert during meditation sessions. Gradually, tea became famous among Japanese communities, but as it was initially used with religious value, the same weight and sacredness were given to tea as a beverage. The value and respect given to tea influenced the creation of the Japanese tea ceremony, a most colorful event in modern Japanese tea culture.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony evolved in the 15th century, emphasizing respect for tea. The sacred Japanese tea ceremony, called "Chanoyu," evolved as an art of making, serving, and drinking tea with due respect to tea as a beverage. The Japanese tea ceremony became a vital part of Japanese tea culture that caused changes in Japanese architecture by adding unique tea rooms in the back yards of houses, and it became a must-to-know process for women to qualify for marriage.

Traditional Japanese Tea

The traditional Japanese tea is called Matcha tea, a finely ground powder of specially treated green tea leaves. Matcha tea is prepared in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies by whisking it with water, following an artistic step. Most Japanese people love a steeped tea that gives a fresh green taste to Matcha tea. So, matcha tea plays a vital role in Japanese tea culture.

Tea in Modern Japan

Japan has become technologically sophisticated in all aspects of the modern world. Though the Japanese preferred steeped tea in the past, today's tea is entirely different. Tea is available in value-added forms, such as instant tea bags or ready–drink bottles. However, even today, tea is served with every meal and to greet guests. Despite ancient hand-processed methods of tea production, Japan uses the most technologically advanced techniques to cultivate and process tea. This technological advancement has taken the Japanese tea culture to a new level.

Russia's Tea History

Russia's encounter with tea began in 1618 with a diplomatic gift from China. It rapidly became popular among the community as a new beverage with refreshing and medicinal properties. With the sudden demand that arose, the importation of tea from China was started through a camel caravan trade route. Initially, it took around 1.5 years to reach tea from China to Russia through a camel caravan, and later it was shortened to one week after the trans-Siberian railway started.

Europe's Tea History

China, as did the Europeans, was among the first nations to explore the world through naval expeditions. This resulted in both nations opening up to trading with each other and exchanging valuables. It was first recorded that a Venetian merchant brought tea to Europe from China in the 1550s. In the meantime, the Dutch East Company expanded the Portuguese sea route to China and arranged the first-ever tea shipment from China to Europe in 1610. 

With this initiation, tea became one of the most famous beverages in Europe during the 17th century. Chinese tea came to Britain as a royal dowry received from Portuguese princes married to a British King. She was a tea lover and used to serve tea to her royal guests, making tea a popular beverage among British royals. With time, more people engaged in tea drinking, and adventurous tea consumers tried many experiments with tea.

As a result, French ladies developed a revolutionary mix of tea and milk. The common community was distracted from tea after the French Revolution because tea was a beverage associated with royals in France. Later, the conditions changed back in favor of tea. Strong black tea with cream prepared with ritual qualities in Germany is still celebrated among tea lovers and is considered a refresher.                                        

Tea as a Status Symbol

For centuries, tea was considered a high-luxury beverage that only the wealthiest or royals could afford to drink or present as a gift. As a result, drinking tea became a highly fashionable activity. As a result, more prestigious events were added to tea-drinking ceremonies when royals gathered. The tea-drinking events and parties became a symbol that showed the status of wealthy families and royals, and they even painted the events to display in their palaces.

The "Afternoon Tea"

Afternoon tea is still a colorful event in English tea culture. The history of afternoon tea begins with Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. She has identified a long gap between a light breakfast and a late evening meal. So she advised her maid to serve tea with a light refreshment to her in the afternoon, and later, she invited her friends to join her to enjoy this afternoon tea. Ultimately, this habit spread among the community as a relaxing afternoon tea.

The "High Tea"

Many believe that high tea and afternoon tea are the same concept, but they are not. Afternoon tea refers to drinking tea with a light refreshment, while high tea is having a full dinner meal along with tea. High tea sounds more elite, but it is a 19th-century working-class custom. The concept emerged to refresh the late workers in industrial zones while giving them a small break and energy to work more. High tea is served at around 6:00 PM and is served alongside meats, fish, or eggs, cheese, bread and butter, and cake.

Indian Subcontinent Tea History

During the colonial era, India was controlled by many Europeans, and the British were top among them. As demand arose for tea as a beverage in Europe, the British tried cultivating tea in India, where climatic conditions were favorable for tea growing. The experiments succeeded, and India became one of the world's greatest tea producers, while Britain became a leader in tea trading. India wore the crown of the world's largest tea producer for centuries.

China monopolized the world's tea production until the British found a native tea variety in India in 1820. It was a remarkable discovery in tea history that made India a quality black tea producer with native flavorsome characteristics that grabbed the European tea market instantly. Among Indian teas, Assam black tea became the best source of English Breakfast tea, which commenced exporting to Europe in the 1830s. In the meantime, Darjeeling tea gained fame as the champagne of tea, expressing its quality to the world.

Tea Plantations in India

China continuously followed a policy of self-sufficiency in international trading that caused it to be isolated from the rest. They hesitated to trade with Europe, making it difficult for British traders to source tea. This trading policy brought them a huge profit due to higher demand in European society.

Therefore, European traders were prompted to explore other alternatives to sourcing tea, like growing their own tea gardens. As a result, the British rulers of India found some regions in northern India that possessed ideal conditions to grow tea. Also, they found a new tea variety in Assam in early 1823. Though they initially found some difficulties in tea growing and processing, they finally mastered the art of tea making through a mystery approach to China. This expanded knowledge of tea growing and processing created a beautiful tea garden in northern India and presented a wonderful flavor of tea to the whole world.

North America's Tea History

Early North America was a country built with migrants from Europe. Therefore, it is no surprise that northern America is becoming a tea-drinking continent. Europe's traditions, rules, and etiquette crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the north of America, along with its beautiful tea culture. As a result, the teahouses, elegant silver, and porcelain tea accessories are famous in the new cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia even today.

The American Revolution

Though America was a tea-drinking nation initially, the country has largely shifted to coffee. Do you wonder why? Tea became the single largest and most valued commodity exported by Britain during the second half of the 18th century. The British government imposed a specific tea tax to earn a higher profit through the higher demand for tea in America, which gradually rose to 119%. It caused a doubling of tea prices when it entered the American wholesale tea market. This series of events ultimately resulted in a shift in consumer preference and thus began the coffee-drinking habit in America.  

Tea in Modern America

With technological advancement, modern America has a new tea culture that suits a busy and complex lifestyle. Americans found tea in bags and iced tea, bringing tea drinking into a new era. Though tea drinking is less popular than coffee drinking in America, modern Americans prefer to drink tea as a soft drink and a healthy beverage.

Final Thoughts

Tea is a fabulous beverage that is mostly consumed next to water. The origin of tea goes back thousands of years, and a Chinese emperor first found it as a refreshing medicinal beverage. With time, tea became popular in countries like Tibet, Japan, Russia, India, Europe, and America. 

Tea's beauty spread worldwide and became a sacred, religious, and luxurious beverage in different communities. As a result, the preparation, serving, and drinking of tea became an activity bonded with the routine lives of people, and it was called the tea culture. East Asian countries like China and Japan consider tea a beverage with religious and sacred value. In countries like Russia and Europe, tea was a luxurious beverage that symbolized the status of royals and wealthy communities. 

With modern technology, the tea culture is not practiced as it used to be for centuries, and instant techniques of drinking tea have emerged, creating a new episode in tea drinking.

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